Out of Chattanooga: “The Life and Times of Bessie Smith”


By Clifford Eberhardt


Chapter 5

To educate Colored people, the city of Chattanooga only provided a two room run-down shack and one teacher.  The schoolhouse was located in a section of West Chattanooga called Frog Pond, next to the city dump.  Few Colored parents sent their children to the school because many children had been bitten by the snakes and rats that made the dump and Frog Pond their home.

Bessie and Andrew often had to fight off the snakes and rats to go to school in the Frog Pond, but they got a good education.  Mrs. Martin was the best teacher in Chattanooga.  Because she was colored herself and knew how important education was for her people, she made sure all her students could read, write and count better than most white children.  Mrs. Martin even taught her students music and an appreciation for art.

Viola made sure that Bessie and Andrew attended school whenever Mrs. Martin had it open.  School was open that next morning, and they were up before dawn getting dressed. As usual, Bessie and Andrew found themselves arguing over the two pieces of bacon and one piece of bread Lulu had left.  Lulu always left half her breakfast for the kids before she went to work at the icehouse.

“Did Bessie eat up all the bacon again honey?” Viola asked Andrew while looking sternly at Bessie.  “Don’t worry, honey; I put some bacon away for you… and Bessie I wanna talk to you ‘fore you go to school,” Viola added.

Viola took Bessie aside to scold her for leaving church early.  “Bessie, I’m mad at you for leavin’ church yesterday without talkin’ to the Rev. Jones.  You promised me you was gonna join the Baptist Church, but the Rev. Jones said you left way ‘fore church service was out!”

Bessie didn’t say a word.  She only dropped her head and stared at the dirt floor.

“Bessie, honey, you know how much I wanna see you singin’ in that church choir. That’s why I asked Rev. Jones to come to talk to you today ‘bout joinin’ the church and singin’ in the junior choir.  So, you come right home from school today… and that mean no stoppin’ at them joints on Ninth Street… y’all hear?” Viola said, but Bessie never looked up.

When Viola was finished speaking, Bessie turned away and ran out of the door. Andrew trailed behind carrying their schoolbooks and yelling, “Wait, Bessie! Bessie, wait for me!”

Bessie was angry at Viola.  She had never thought about running away from home, but as she and her brother walked through Frog Pond, running away from home was the only thing on her mind.

Bessie never really knew if Viola was her blood sister.  She only knew that since she could remember, the family had always lived with Viola.  And Viola had always looked out for them like a mother.  Lulu used to say that their parents left Viola in charge before they died.  But how did she know, since she never remembered seeing her mother nor father, Bessie would often wonder.

“Viola can’t make me join no Baptist Church if I don’t wanna… she ain’t my mama,” Bessie said to herself as she and Andrew entered the run-down schoolhouse, after crossing the Frog Pond.  The schoolhouse was so small that all the children were packed at two, six-foot long tables joined together.  Bessie’s anger left when she entered the school and saw Mrs. Martin.  It was Monday, the day Mrs. Martin taught music.  Music was Bessie’s favorite subject, and Mrs. Martin had promised to teach her more octaves and rhythm.  Because Bessie had a promising voice, Mrs. Martin gave special attention to her.

Of the 20 or so kinds who attended the school regularly, none was brighter than Bessie.  And none beat Bessie out of the school’s door at three o’ clock when it was time to leave.  Each day after school, Bessie went straight to Ninth Street and waited for the juke joints to get crowded with the workers from the icehouse.  Andrew would make the rounds with her.

Bessie and Andrew were always together when they were on Ninth Street. Sometimes Bessie acted much like a tomboy, and because of her plaited hair and deep contralto voice, some patrons of the joints on Ninth Street didn’t know whether she was a boy or a girl.

Going form joint to joint, Bessie would sing and dance by the music of a hand-cranked phonograph called a Victorla.  Victrolas were common in all the joints.  The people who listened to Bessie sing over the volume of the Victorla would throw pennies, nickels and dimes her way.  Andrew would pick up the money while Bessie sang the blues.  The money they collected that day amounted to about 55 cents, and Bessie would always give it to Viola to help buy food.

Bessie had been singing since she was three years old.  She started hanging out down on Ninth Street and singing in the joints when she was nine.  To get a laugh, Viola would often tell people that Bessie could sing before she could talk.

It was about five o’clock when Bessie and Andrew finished making their rounds hustling the joint and were on their way back to Tannery Flats.  On their way home Bessie saw a newspaper boy selling the Chattanooga Blade.  Most Colored people in Chattanooga who could read bought the Blade.  It was the only Colored newspaper in Tennessee at that time, and it was published by a man named Randolph Miller who called it, “The progressive voice of the Colored community.”

“Read all about it! Read all about it!” the newspaper boy yelled.  “Read all about it! Read all about it!”
“Ma Rainey’s Minstrel Show is coming to town… read all about it! Read all about it!”

After hearing what the paperboy was saying, Bessie made a mad dash with 5 cents to buy a copy of the Blade.  The first paragraph of the story read:

“Ma Rainey’s Rabbit Foot Minstrel Show will be coming to Chattanooga on Sunday, May 16th. The show will be held outside Chattanooga’s city limits and will feature a singing contest with a $75 grand prize.  Admission to the show will be 25 cents.”

“Andrew, you read this… Ma Rainey’s comin’ to town and I gotta go see her,” Bessie said with a joy that had not been seen on her face in a long time.

“She sing that devil’s music… and just don’t think ‘bout goin’… ‘cause Viola ain’t gonna let you go see no Ma Rainey,” Andrew said to Bessie as they ran the few blocks to Tannery Flats.


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